Vladimir Petric Teaches Film

Professor Vladimir K. Petric (called by everyone "Vlada") enters the Carpenter Center lecture hall on May 2 for what is to be the last lecture of his five-year career as Henry R. Luce Visiting Professor of Film Studies. Of the 180 students enrolled in the course, nine are present. By the end of the lecture, six more will have arrived. A puzzled girl distributes Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) Guide Course Evaluation sheets for next year's publication, but Professor Petric informs her with a trace of exasperation, that both he and the course will depart after this lecture--and besides, he says, class attendance is not exactly high this day. (Students present will later defend their absent classmates, citing the fact that reading period has already begun and final papers will soon be due.) His microphoned voice echoing over the empty hall, Petric delivers what some will later say is his most brilliant and successful lecture of the term: an excoriating blast of the Arts at Harvard, Harvard students, commercial cinema, and even of human existence. (Petric: I was sitting up in bed the other night when I began to laugh. My wife asked, "Why are you laughing?" "Because life is so absurdly funny," I told her.)

"I'm surprised that students were so unintelligent not to attend," he says, later. "They didn't think about the fact that on an emotional level the last lecture of a five-year program would be interesting, that I might express something unintentional, something related to my feelings about life."

Petric took over the professorship in 1973 from Standish Lawder, who had taught at Harvard for a year before leaving for Yale. The original Luce Grant to the Carpenter Center ran for five years, but the Luce Foundation extended the Film Studies program an extra year to the end of the current semester. With this money, and through the efforts of the Standing Committee on Film, the Carpenter Center has housed weekly experimental screenings, seminars, extra courses, guest lecturers and guest filmmakers. The last few years have seen the establishment of a film archive (with over 700 films), and the pur chasing of Steenback editing tables for film analysis, stop-motion projectors, and special cameras for making blow-ups of individual frames.

For the film committee, Petric prepared a five-page report entitled, "Film History as an Acadmic Discipline: Results of a Teaching Project." In its original form, the report closes, "...the six-year Henry Luce Program of Film Studies has proved it can be such a success." After his final lecture, however, he revises the last page, this time with publication in mind: "So far, my experience in this struggle has been less than rewarding."

Petric says of the apparent change in feeling, "The program may be judged a success by what was done to stir interest in the cinema--to bring to Harvard various professors of film, and to buy all the necessary equipment. Carpenter Center now has some of the best resources in the country. I don't think it was a success in persuading all the faculty and students that film could be studied as an academic discipline--it hasn't changed Harvard student's attitudes toward cinema, in spite of the fact that the course began five years ago with only 30 students, and now has 180. People still think of film as merely a medium for entertainment."

But on May 12, the Standing Committee on Film Studies, chaired by Stanley Cavell, Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, meets with representatives from the Luce Foundation, as well as President Bok and Dean Rosovsky. No one had dared hope for much going in, but the Luce representatives and Bok and Rosovsky express their enthusiasm for the program and pledge future financial support to expand it. Petric, who has received several offers from other colleges, is offered a renewed professorship, which he immediately accepts.

The focus of the course which Petric has taught, Humanities 193, "History of Film: The Fvolution of Cinematic Expression," and the focus of his study of the cinema, is film as a unique art form. In his report, Petric writes, "Borrowing techniques common to literature, painting, music, photography, theater and other art forms, cinema has been able to assimilate more features belonging to other means of expression than any other pretwentieth century means of communication." Petric stresses that film artistry is the result of using visual and aural cinematic devices to convey thematic elements. A film may be intelligently written and acted, he says, but it does not qualify as a work of cinematic art unless all components are integrated. Likewise, a technically brilliant film cannot be cinematic art unless all the devices are used in support of the content and ideas.

Petric admits that one can approach film from numerous interdisciplinary angles (political, social, etc.)--and indeed he hopes to see courses and seminars in "Political Filmmaking," or "Film and Literature"--but such disciplines are not enough for Petric, since none treats film as an autonomous form of artistic expression.

"People can't understand that you can study filmmakers like Welles, John Ford, Renoir and Bergman the way you can study Tolstoy, Whitman and Shakespeare. Students have a difficult time accepting film as anything more than entertainment or communication. Imagine if a professor in the Music department had to spend a semester convincing students that there is a difference between popular music and music as art!"

"Film studies offers incredible opportunities for scholarly research--we rely only on written documents to study the original Elizabethan theater, but we can scrutinize films in the form in which they have always existed.

"Students who disregard film as art are poorer for it--it would affect their general perception, making them more sensitive to all the arts (even science), and it would expand them as intellectuals.

"Hollywood is the greatest stigma for film studies in this country--and yet without Hollywood even I wouldn't exist. This is one of the dialectics of our profession. When my colleagues finally realize that I'm involved in studying cinema by itself, they immediately ask, 'What did you think of Star Wars?'" He throws up his hands and gestures helplessly.

One function of film studies on a university level, says Petric, is to introduce the student to cinematic artists whom the popular moviegoers ignore: experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Bruce Bailey, or Hollis Frampton, or foreign artists such as Kenji Mizoguchi or Jean-Luc Godard.

Although Harvard has no specific concentration in Film Studies, masters and doctoral candidates may concentrate in film within their own area of study. Currently there are doctoral candidates studying the Japanese Contemporary Cinema, Documentary Cinema (Wiseman), and Soviet Revolutionary Cinema.

Professor Petric often complains bitterly in his lectures about "journalistic film criticism," which only treats film "thematically and impressionistically. Reviewers can be moved by Chaplin, excited by Renoir, or taken by Citizen Kane, but hardly anyone specifically justifies his point of view analytically or cinematically." Music or art criticism, he points out, is often analytical, whereas film criticism is not.